Charleston’s Christmas holiday kickoff almost ended in disaster Saturday night when a terrified zoo giraffe tried to break free from its handlers in heavily crowded Marion Square.

The 2-year-old giraffe began bucking like a rodeo animal during a Santa Claus arrival skit, apparently scared by the concentration of flashing camera lights, the amplified sound of a deep-voiced carol-singer and the explosive “pops” of white confetti shot in the air.

No one was reported injured, but those into the crowd said they were worried a potentially dangerous episode was in the making.

“I definitely thought it was about to start running loose,” said Brian Morse of West Ashley, who brought his family to watch the show.

Morse said that at first, he didn’t think the giraffe was real but was a stage prop or something similar to the large puppet animals used in “The Lion King” show on Broadway.

But from his position about 30 yards away, he saw the giraffe’s long and unpredictable neck swinging about violently, with people nearby.

“I was with my kids (age 5 and 7) and I was like ‘I can’t believe this is happening,’ ” Morse said.

The fear factor escalated when the estimated 10-foot-tall giraffe began to kick about with its flailing forward legs.

Morse was far enough away that he didn’t feel he was in immediate danger but said his mind wandered to the potential catastrophe of an “African animal running through Marion Square at night.”

Mayor Joe Riley was present and participated as part of the annual holiday celebration launch.

Ellen Dressler Moryl, director of the Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs, said the giraffe, along with two zebras, was part of a skit to announce the entrance of Santa Claus.

Every year the skit is different, she said. Last year, the city used three camels. The giraffe was a change-up.

Moryl said the giraffe comes from a farm in South Carolina and is trained to appear in public events. It was kept inside a truck before it was needed.

“What occurred there was a lot of excitement,” she said.

Moryl, who described herself as an animal lover, said she received favorable comments afterward.

“I had a number of people comment how excited their kids were,” she said. She did not know what next year’s skit would be or whether it would include an animal element.

A representative for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, however, called on Charleston to halt its use of live animals in such events, saying spectacles terrorize them and brings them too close to humans.

Kristin Simon, a senior cruelty caseworker from Norfolk, Va., called video of the event “very disturbing” and a “huge folly” on the part of the city.

Animals used for such events are held in confinement until their cue, she said. And when they emerge, they are put into strange settings where humans want to reach out and touch or grab at them.

“They are stressed,” she said.

“Clearly, this didn’t go so good,” she added.

News of the Saturday night incident quickly traveled by way of social media.

“Live giraffe at the #chs Christmas tree lighting, who of course was freaked by the crowd and flashing lights — fail,” one Twitter user wrote.

“The image of the young giraffe bucking and hit in the face with confetti is burned into my brain,” the same user wrote.

Morse questioned why the confetti guns announcing Santa Claus’ arrival were allowed to be fired after the animal had already shown obvious signs of trying to break free, almost becoming a national news story.

The night was “15 seconds away from being a YouTube viral classic,” he said.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.